Life

Here's What You Should Do About Coronavirus and Travel Plans

Should I cancel my summer trip? Are family gatherings Petri dishes? Or: Maybe it's the time to... book cheap tickets? (It's not!)
12 March 2020, 9:28am
What You Should Do About Coronavirus and Travel Plans

The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing by the day, meaning some of the information in this article might be out of date. For our most recent coronavirus coverage, click here.

Despite the WHO newly declaring COVID-19, or coronavirus, an official global pandemic, travel bans have, thus far, been far and few between throughout this outbreak. That could be because public health experts mostly agree that telling people not to travel doesn’t do much to contain disease – because not everyone experiences symptoms and also because people be lyin’. But many are looking at previously booked vacations on the horizon, or hovering their little fingers over deeply discounted tickets aboard mostly empty planes, and wondering: What the hell do I do?

The TL;DR is, if you’re a cautious or paranoid person, you should probably avoid booking any trips until public officials have more of a handle on the pandemic. But for everything else, we asked public health and travel experts about the least stupid things to do about all your upcoming travel plans.

If I don’t personally feel sick or have any coronavirus symptoms, can I still go on this trip I have planned for March or April?

If you’re headed somewhere that the CDC has labeled with a level three travel notice, then no, definitely not. The CDC recommends canceling any non-essential trip to countries with sustained, ongoing coronavirus transmission.

That doesn’t give you the all-clear to take advantage of cheap flights and go anywhere your little heart desires (tempting though it may be). As Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, previously told VICE, most cases of coronavirus will be so mild, they’ll be almost entirely asymptomatic. So even if you feel fine, that doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t infected with something you can transmit to other travelers around you.

If you’re young and fairly healthy, the biggest issue is the risk you pose to hundreds of people every time you go somewhere crowded, like an airport or train station. At this point in the US, public health experts aren’t even trying to stop the outbreak, but slow it down. To do that, they’re strongly emphasizing the importance of social distancing, or avoiding large crowds and getting physically close to other people, in general.

“Whenever you see the virus, it’s moved on already—it will have infected other people by the time you become aware of it,” Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Washington Post. “Slowing it down matters because it prevents the health service [from] becoming overburdened. We have a limited number of beds; we have a limited number of ventilators; we have a limited number of all the things that are part of supportive care that the most severely affected people will require.”

If you simply must go somewhere – especially to a place with a high number of cases – be honest about any symptoms you may be experiencing, don’t lie to airport security about where you’ve been, and consider self-quarantining for 14 days when you get back home. Travel bans have proven largely ineffective at controlling the spread of coronavirus; social distancing (plus, yes, proper and frequent hand washing) are now the best options for slowing it down.

OK fine, but what about a trip in June or July?

If you’re not in a group that’s more at-risk for severe infection (people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions), you’re, personally, probably going to be just fine, even if you get infected. But this is a public health crisis, not a personal one! The risk you pose to yourself is smaller than the posed to all the people who are forced to be around germy little wanderlusters who are unwittingly carrying coronavirus from place to place. There’s currently little indication that coronavirus will be controlled in the US, or other countries experiencing outbreaks, by this summer. Some public health experts believe the warm weather could slow down the virus, which seems to thrive in colder, drier conditions, but that remains to be seen.

Is it stupid to get on ANY plane during the coronavirus pandemic?

Kansler aptly referred to airports as “big Petri dishes.” Even if none of the passengers on your flight have come into contact with coronavirus, you still have to pass through the germ paradise of the airport to board a plane. (And remember: people who look and feel healthy may not actually be healthy.) Traveling is always a little risky: You’re anywhere between 20–113 times more likely to get sick with a cold while traveling. Airlines and airports are doing a lot now to keep people safe, like sanitizing the daylights out of surfaces, asking crew to wear masks, and reducing hand to hand contact. It’s not stupid to fly right now, per se, but it’s also not not stupid, if you are concerned about your health and the health of those who have to interact with you.

Can I ride a bus or train during the coronavirus pandemic?

Maybe even stupider than a plane, actually! In an email, Maxwell Leitschuh, a transportation analyst at WorldAware, explained that, during an outbreak like this, “planes themselves are one of the safer public places to be.” People generally stay in their seats during a flight and aren’t touching each other, and HEPA filters placed every two to three rows recycle fresh, outside air frequently throughout the flight.

Lietschuh said trains and buses are a bit more iffy. They lack the fancy, well-distributed HEPA filters, and people move around a lot more – boarding, leaving, walking to the snack car and bathroom, resting their hands on seats as they walk, etc. Normally, taking a bus or a train instead of flying is a great idea, because almost nothing is worse for the environment than flying… but in these coronavirus time, you’re better off not going anywhere at all.

What are the odds I can cancel a fight I’ve already booked?

Depends on when you booked it, and which airline you used; a full list of policies, broken down by carrier, is available here. After the CDC recommended that older adults and those with underlying health conditions avoid long air travel and/or being in confined public spaces, airlines started loosening their typically strict cancelation and rebooking policies. Every carrier has a slightly different policy, but if you have any upcoming flights in March, you can probably cancel them and get a refund. Those policies will all likely change, depending on what the outbreak looks like in the weeks and months to come.

I have plans to visit a place without any confirmed cases (so far), can I still go?

Sure, but – as we’ve already seen – conditions can change quickly. Even if a city you’re headed to doesn’t have a high number (or any) cases right now, an outbreak could happen while you’re there, and majorly derail your plans. Courtney Kansler, a senior health intelligence analyst at risk management company WorldAware, told VICE that travel restrictions between countries can change in an instant. If you don’t have travel insurance, or if your policy doesn’t cover medical expenses, that could mean facing medical evacuation and getting stuck away from home much longer than expected. (Have we all forgotten the Diamond Princess cruise ship fiasco?) Depending on your situation, that could mean: paying for more nights in a hotel/Airbnb, paying for more pet sitter time, running out of any prescription meds you take regularly, and (if you get paid time off) using all your paid time off.

I’m supposed to go visit my grandparents/elderly relatives in the next six months; should I cancel?

Do you love them? Then yeah, you should probably cancel. People over 65 are considered more at-risk for severe infection. Even if you live in a community without any confirmed cases, the places you’ll pass through and things you touch on the way to visit your relatives may be more dangerous. Considering the virus can take as long as 14 days to incubate, and that many people who test positive are asymptomatic, there’s little way of knowing, for sure, the amount of risk you pose to other people.

Should I buy extra travel insurance for any trips I’m planning?

Standard travel insurance – like the kind airlines offer at checkout – can be handy if you need to cancel a previously booked trip, but the list of covered reasons to cancel is limited and does not include epidemics and pandemics. For this outbreak, standard coverage might help with medical expenses if you personally become sick, and, depending on your plan, may cover emergency evacuation.

If you want to cancel a trip later this year, out of concern for coronavirus, you’ll need a fancier policy known as a Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR). These policies are available through third-party travel insurers, not directly through an airline, and are exactly what they sound like: high-cost travel insurance plans that allow you to cancel a trip, for any reason at all.

That sounds nice, but peace of mind rarely comes free. CFAR policies aren’t available in every US state (though that could change, as this outbreak continues), and they have to be purchased within two to three weeks of booking, according to Kasara Barto, a public relations manager with travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth. Figures Barto shared with VICE show that standard travel insurance usually runs between 7–10 percent of the total trip cost, and adding CFAR is usually about 40 percent more. CFAR plans also only allow you to recoup up to 75 percent of what you paid for the whole trip.

Will my travel credit card help me get money back if I cancel a trip?

If you have a credit card with travel perks and points, the travel you booked with that card may already be insured and refundable. Each card comes with its own rules about reasons you’re allowed to cancel and what is covered. Check the fine print of your card policy or call your credit card company before booking (or canceling). Better yet? Don’t book a trip you’re pretty sure you’ll just cancel in a few months.

Can a hotel suddenly cancel my reservation if it suddenly has a coronavirus outbreak?

Yes, and wouldn’t you want it to? Hotel employees, many of whom are hourly workers, are at risk if hotels stay open in the midst of an active coronavirus outbreak, and guests also face heightened risk in a place with so many shared spaces. Several hotel chains have already closed dozens of locations due to coronavirus, issuing refunds to guests, and many are waiving cancellation fees for guests who change their minds about staying.

What about Airbnb?

Due to the outbreak, Airbnb is allowing guests traveling to or from a list of severely impacted areas to cancel their reservations for a full refund, free of charge. Airbnb is updating its list of severely impacted areas daily, so a reservation you have now in a city without an outbreak may become available for refund if things change in the near future.

Flights to Italy are so cheap… Should I go?

NO!!!! No. Even if you have the money to deal with potential medical costs, the last thing severely affected areas need right now are healthy people jetting into them, getting sick (and/or getting others sick), and putting even more strain on an already strapped healthcare system. Saving $100 on a flight is not worth being branded an asshole and publicly ridiculed for the rest of your life.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.